Saturday, April 16, 2011

Getting Schooled

Let me just say that I am often schooled by my students. Sometimes it is something simple like getting whupped in a game of chess. My little friend Jackson can do that fairly regularly. I usually use the lame excuse of trying to keep an eye on the entire classroom while he gets to devote all of his concentration on the game. Yeah, right.

Sometimes it is our student teacher who says just the right thing, makes the perfect connection or gently corrects a miscue on my part. I appreciate it. The other day she pointed me in the direction of a friend who needed face time after school to work through some problems. It was the best advice I’d gotten from someone - far less than half my age – in a long time.

There are times when I plunge through my school days without slowing down as much as I should, without putting myself into the shoes of these little ones I am blessed to teach. Not often, but it does happen.


Last week there was considerable fussing about pencils at our work tables. Each table has a container, which I try to keep filled with sharpened pencils. The kids bring in a bunch of pencils with their school supplies at the beginning of the year and I keep them all in the supply closet. As needed I break them out and sharpen them up and divide them among the pencil cups. It seems a little socialist. You bring them in, we put them out for all to share. Makes sense.

A few days ago we were in writing workshop and I was pointing out that some tables seem to end up with all the pencils while others have empty pencil cups. All pencils are everybody’s pencils. If anyone needs a pencil they may get one from any container and we shouldn’t be so possessive and blah, blah, blah… This had become a source of conflict.

During my diatribe, while about half of the class was thinking about something else entirely, I’m sure, one of my little ones was going through the pencils at her table, pulling an eraser from one pencil, putting it on another. Obviously, she wasn’t listening to me at all.

I reached down and grabbed it from her, annoyed that she wasn’t listening and ignoring my impassioned plea about just using the pencil in front of you (and blah, blah, blah). She looked up at me with hurt eyes. We went on to workshop and she picked up a random pencil. She went on to write and never said anything to me about it.

I went back to my own writer’s notebook and the image of her pretty face was still in my mind. It wasn’t a big deal, I just grabbed the pencil out of her hand so she would listen to me. It wasn’t a violent snatch, just an irritated one. She knows I love her. I was just getting her attention. But there was a little hurt in her eyes and I couldn’t get that image out of my mind.

Walking near her table and sitting on the floor I waited until she looked at me. I motioned for her to sit by me. The others were pretty deep into their writing. Mr. Santana was playing lovely instrumentals on the stereo (Hey, if we don’t teach these kids about Santana then who will?).

She sat down next to me with a “what’s up?” expression on her face.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have snatched that pencil out of your hands."

“That’s OK.”

“No, it’s not OK. I blew my cool over something small and I took it out on you. That was a little mean of me. You didn’t deserve it.” She gave me the sweetest look.

“No, it’s really OK,” she said. She reached over and hugged me. Then we looked each other in the eye. It was just a little moment but a lot passed through in that short time. She sort of just nodded and then got up and went back to her writing.

I felt like crap and exhilarated simultaneously. This beautiful child taught me a lesson like no one else could. She could have rubbed it in, become all sad and self-righteous and hurt. She could have given me ice. Maybe I deserved some. But she gave me forgiveness. I was the bonehead and she was the mature one.

And I sat there watching her return to her seat thinking about how wonderful this job is. And how complex. And how gratifying. And how so much of who I am is tied up with this wonderful group of people. And how I am a better person for being in the company of children.

I am also left wondering about how many times I leave a grouchy word or an unnecessary cross look dangling without a proper explanation or, yes, even an apology. That is not to say that I shouldn’t be firm now and then. It would be a mess without someone deliberate in charge. That’s what I do and what I have been doing for a long time. But every once in a while I am reminded to have a lighter touch, to follow the rules that we worked so hard to negotiate at the beginning of the year. To treat others the way I would like to be treated.

Rules for Living and Learning Together

Second Grade Class 2010-2011

*Be kind and gentle.

*Always try to do your best. Be responsible.

*Apologize when you make mistakes. Be forgiving.

*Be respectful.

*Follow your conscience.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.


Emily Whitecotton said...

Ahh yes, socialist pencil coordination, I know it well. So glad that you are legitimizing Mr. Santana's music with your kids. The answer to your question is that no one will introduce them. Maybe a rogue middle school history teacher or the high school jazz band director, but really...why wait that long. No need.

I love this post. So often I find that my students just know how to be mature. When we give them the opportunity to show it by acting like real people around them, there are very few times that my kids haven't come through in the clutch. (if they haven't there is usually a very good reason) I have watched other teachers treat kids as though our bigness gives us the okay to be disrespectful or that it is even helping the kids construct an idea of what the authority figure is 'supposed to do.' Regardless of the reason, I find that there is so much learning that happens (for both the bigger and the littler) in these situations when we can bust up the walls that separate us and just be real. It's pretty cool that respect encourages learning because I think we are supposed to be in the business of facilitating that stuff. Good share.

Scott and Malisa Johnson said...

Oh Tim! I'm sure loving spring break this week, however, after reading this post I long to see my classmates precious faces. We do have a great job, don't we?

Meesh Hays said...

All too often I find myself annoyed by the pencils - the sharing, sharpening, tapping, tossing, and occasional chewing of them can put me over the deep end and FAST. The small people mean no harm with the pencils, but I find myself interpreting affront all too often. (Wonder what that says about me...) Bless them in their forgiving and understanding when it comes to our small irritations.

Thank you, as always, for the honest peek into your world. Isn't it wonderful that after all these years that the little colleagues still teach you something about yourself and about love?

Chris Hass said...

Somehow I doubt your reaction to the pencil/listening situation was all that bad. Either way, you apologized and that's not something too many adults do with kids. I'm not sure why they don't, but they don't.

Santana, huh? I envision this conversation a year or two from now..."I really loved Mr. O but he played this really weird music. I kept waiting for someone to sing but, like, they never did. It just kept going on and on and on..."

I think having an intern teaches (reminds) us a lot about being a student. As you sit there and listen in on someone you sometimes start to feel restless and begin pulling at the carpet or wanting to turn to make a comment to someone or get up and run around the room like crazy. You think..."Alright, let's get writing already!" or "Can we start reading yet?" Not because the teacher isn't doing a great job but because you're not in control of your time and it's kind of uneasy. Sometimes you're not in the mood to listen or stop working on something. I try to do my best to keep to a minimum the amount of time I spend talking at the kids. And I always assume that I'm very interesting and funny. Still, I occasionally see the erasers being pulled off the pencils. Or fingers dragging up and down the wall. Or someone trying to secretly braid a neighbor's hair. And I'm reminded that perhaps I'm not engaging 100% of the time - or at least they're not ready to be engaged 100% of the time. And at that moment I try my best to think of myself in a meeting and how I'd feel if Lyn called out "Chris, have you heard a single I've said the past five minutes? Tell me, tell everyone, what did I JUST say?!" I'm guessing there'd be times I might have to walk some laps at recess or have some alone time at lunch.